When Derrick Walton Jr. looked at the box score, he could hardly believe what he saw. He moved his finger across the stat line with his name.
Nine points. Seven assists. One turnover.
Walton’s eyes got big.
At last week’s NBA draft combine in Chicago, the former Michigan point guard impressed himself, but the bigger question is whether he impressed the NBA scouts and executives in attendance at Quest Multisport Center.
That Walton even was at the combine was a boost, as he was an alternate but with several of the top prospects skipping parts of the combine, Walton tried to make the most of his opportunity. He shot 2-of-7 from the field and 1-of-3 from beyond the arc.
“I played decent; I didn’t make as many open shots as I’m accustomed to making, but first-day jitters, I got them out of the way,” Walton said. “I played a good floor game, but I’ve got to be better on defense. It’s a new game and I’m getting accustomed to it.”
As one of the few seniors at the combine, Walton is trying to show that his four years of experience at Michigan aren’t a hindrance. Last season, as a senior, Walton wasn’t projected to be an NBA prospect, but midway through the season, something clicked.
He boosted Michigan to the Big Ten tournament championship and to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament — coming within a shot of beating Oregon — and playing the best ball of his career. Things have a way of changing quickly.
In the NBA, one injury can push a player from the bench into a starting role. Or from the end of the bench to the playing rotation. Or from the D-League to the NBA. It’s what happens in the aftermath of those instances that determines a player’s future.
For Walton, that future still appears murky; he’s not projected to be picked in the first or second round of many draft boards. He measured 5-foot-11, 189 pounds without shoes — not ideal NBA height — but he showed the heart and moxie in the competitive Big Ten that could translate to the NBA.
Along with the combine, Walton will have his chance to make an impression on NBA teams in the next few weeks before the draft on June 22.
“His individual workouts will be valuable for him as well,” Michigan coach John Beilein said last week. “He has to be the Derrick Walton we saw in February and March. He should play with a lot of swag, because he’s good.
“It should be very motivational for him.”
For Walton, 22, the dream is about hearing his name called in the draft. That means more shots, more work and more waiting in the next month. He said he had a workout scheduled with the Los Angeles Lakers and was looking to have a few more in the next month.
The optimistic scenario would be a second-round selection, for a team — such as the Pistons or Los Angeles Lakers — that needs a developmental third point guard and is willing to take a shot on a smallish point guard.
Things change quickly in the second round of the draft — and anything can happen. It only takes one team.
“Kudos to Derrick Walton. He had a monster season and he’s probably likely a D-League player,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said on a combine teleconference last week. “He shoots the absolute cover off the basketball.
“And when you look at all the guys who are point guards in this draft after the first five, I just watched him give (Oklahoma State’s) Jawun Evans fits. Some people think Jawun Evans is a first-rounder and he could not guard Walton.”
Proving doubters wrong
It’s not as if Walton, needs a kick in the pants. Even when he was a high school standout at Chandler Park Academy, playing under his father, Derrick Sr., he had to hear the whispers of those who thought he wasn’t good enough to be a star at Michigan.
Now, it’s up to Walton to prove the NBA doubters wrong. And there’s a good example for him to follow: former Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell, another undersized point guard. Ferrell got a look with the Brooklyn Nets and went back to the D-League before signing a 10-day contract with the Dallas Mavericks in January.
Ferrell started 29 of the final 36 games for the Mavericks, posting 11.3 points and 4.3 assists.
Things change quickly in the NBA.
That could be an option for Walton, but it’s not the vision.
“That’s not what my camp is talking about. I get the comparison to the Yogi situation,” he said. “The traditional smaller point guards being hot in the NBA. That’s the wave I’m riding and hopefully I can prove how good I am and make a roster.”
Besides Ferrell, there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas and Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis. There aren’t too many 5-11 unicorns. But he might have to find his own way.
“Everybody has a different path and if that’s the case, I’ll (go through the D-League),” Walton said. “Right now, I’m trying to control what I can control.”
Walton is used to that control, with the ball in his hands in his 127 career appearances with the Wolverines. More than anything, Walton is regarded as a top shooter, which could be his calling card in the NBA.
Even if he isn’t drafted, Walton could get a shot with a team in the summer league, which he could parlay into an invite to a training camp and then from there, who knows? Although, he may not have one particular area where he excels above the other prospects, but he’s very good in many areas, including defense, where some other smaller guards have difficulty. And with four years of college experience, he could step in and help a team as a backup right away.
“That’s a thing that works in my favor, being a guy that’s ready to play right now,” Walton said. “At this point, I don’t care where I go. This is a life-long dream to play at this level, so I can’t be picky about it. I’m excited to have the opportunity.”
It’s no guarantee about being drafted or getting a contract, but it’s a shot. And it’s more than he had last season or at the start of his senior year.
But things change quickly. And maybe they will for Walton.